Message to Mitt: Stop Using the Bogus Thomas Paine Quote
Mitt Romney is sounding very presidential of late. In fact, as I listened to his speech in Las Vegas on Saturday night, I thought for the first time that he might have a chance of beating Barack Obama. Romney's recent rhetorical strategy (as opposed to his campaign ad strategy) has been to target the president and ignore the other GOP contenders. So far it seems to be working.
In the last couple of weeks, Romney has been using a quote which he says is "reported" to have been uttered by the eighteenth-century revolutionary Thomas Paine. His punch line goes like this (italics mine): "In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.' Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it's time for you to get out of the way!" This attack on Obama gets an uproarious response from the Romney faithful.
There is one problem with Romney's latest applause line: Thomas Paine never said "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." (The line was probably uttered by George Patton.) A representative from the Yale Book of Quotations, published by Yale University Press, has said that "the notion that Thomas Paine said this is extremely ridiculous." Scholars have stated that this quote is not found anywhere in Paine's writings.
If Romney likes Thomas Paine so much, he could have chosen some quotes that were actually uttered by this radical fomenter of revolution. For example, Paine wrote in his most famous tract Common Sense that "Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." Ronald Reagan, who loved to quote Paine, was fond of saying "we have it in our power to begin the world over again."
The Romney campaign probably knew in advance that this was a bogus quote and used it anyway. Why else would Romney have introduced the line he claimed to be from Paine with the word "reported," as in "Thomas Paine is reported to have said...."
The astute history blogger J.L. Bell is not letting the former Massachusetts governor get away with it. His words are strong, but they are on the mark:
They [Romney's staff] knew that attribution [to Paine] was dubious. They knew that the Republican frontrunner was probably going to repeat a falsehood, so they added some weasel words as protection. It's one thing to repeat a lie you honestly believe; it's another thing to repeat something that you suspect is a lie but want to exploit anyway.
When one of Bell's commentators asked him to "leave contemporary politics" out of his posts devoted to history, Bell fired back. "When contemporary politicians exploit Revolutionary history," he wrote, "that falls under this site's purview."
Bell is absolutely right. His post about Romney's use of this supposed Paine quote, and his response to his commentator who wanted him to keep politics out of the discussion of history, remind us why we need historians and affirms the vocation of those of us who study the past. It is our job to expose people like Mitt Romney and, for that matter, any other politician, regardless of political party, who distorts the past for political gain.
But as Bell notes, there is a larger issue here. The Romney campaign has been blatantly dishonest in the use of this fabricated Paine quote. Have we now come to the point where politicians can make things up for the purpose of skewering their political opponents?
It is not uncommon for politicians to get their historical facts wrong due to poor research or get mixed up about how a particular historical event might relate to the present. This happens all the time to politicians in both parties. But the Romney camp knew that they were wrong about this particular piece of history and still used it to score political points. This is an issue of personal integrity.
Mitt Romney should stop using this fake Thomas Paine quote.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.